Living Out History: Using Blankets to Learn 500 years of Indigenous History

  • June 13, 2019
  • Abigail Cheung

Living Out History: Using Blankets to Learn 500 years of Indigenous History

Picture something you hold dear to your heart.

Now imagine how you would feel if it were unexpectedly taken from you.

That is the aim of the KAIROS Blanket Exercise (KBE), “a unique, participatory history lesson—developed in collaboration with Indigenous Elders, knowledge keepers and educators--that fosters truth, understanding, respect and reconciliation among Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.”

Bringing History to Life

The KBE was introduced in response to the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in 1996, and has been updated several times to include new information, such as the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation final report.

Curious and wishing to learn more about Indigenous peoples’ histories in Vancouver, I participated in the session offered at McCarthy Tétrault.

Participants were invited to bring a blanket with sentimental value. Two instructors led the exercise: one representing Indigenous peoples and the other representing European settlers. They instructed us to spread out our blankets on the ground, each of them touching. This would represent land.

Then we covered 500 years of Indigenous Peoples and settlers’ interactions in my immediate community. Our guides taught us about Turtle Island, an Indigenous name for North America, and how the world came to be from the Indigenous perspective. They covered small pox outbreaks brought by the settlers, and the forced assimilation of children via the residential school system sponsored by the Canadian government and various Christian denominations. For each interaction, a blanket was either folded or removed to show land had been taken and groups had been displaced.

The exercise demonstrated the extricable tie between culture and land. Seeing your blanket folded or removed created a sense of loss and frustration, and even anger and guilt. I am grateful to our instructors, who are willing to share a traumatic history to educate others.

Truth Before Reconciliation

Growing up, I was not exposed to much Indigenous history or culture. My first glimpses into Indigenous history in Canada came while I was a student at Osgoode Hall Law School in classes like Property and Constitutional Law. At Osgoode, I also participated in the Anishinaabe Law Camp. The camp gives students and faculty members a taste of Anishinaabic legal concepts and principles, pedagogies, and modes of reasoning.

Learning more of the truth of our shared history continued from there. At my bar ceremony last March, the presiding judge reiterated the importance of all lawyers familiarizing themselves with the recommendations of the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation final report, at a minimum. I believe a deep understanding of Indigenous history and legal traditions is essential to practicing from a place of cultural sensitivity and awareness.

Inclusion… Now

The idea to offer the KBE flowed from McCarthy Tétrault’s partnership with the Martin Family Initiative’s Indigenous Mentorship Program. Through this program, more than 40 staff from across the country have spent time with and planned events for the Indigenous teenagers they mentor. It has been the starting point for many to educate themselves on Indigenous history and the issues facing these communities.

It also fits into a new initiative we launched last fall, Inclusion Now. The goal is to elevate and accelerate our commitment to diversity, inclusion and social responsibility. It addresses challenges faced by Indigenous peoples, women, racially diverse people, members of the LGBTQ2S community, people with disabilities and religious minorities at our firm and in the community.

For me, a blanket has helped me expand my perspective. I look forward to changing the conversation in my network when it comes to Indigenous issues, and helping ensure reconciliation and meaningful inclusion are achieved.

Abigail Cheung is an associate at McCarthy Tétrault LLP in the Labour & Employment Group in Vancouver. She advises and represents management on a range of labour, employment and human rights matters. She is enthusiastic about pro bono contributions, volunteering with the YWCA Mentoring Program for high school students and serving on the Board of the Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers.